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The hermit and the slave woman

· ​Su’ud and Dhu-l-Nun ·

Withdrawal from the world can be a far more serious danger than the world itself. Solitude, believing that one is together with God, conceals the invisible evil of self-delusion about such a mystical closeness. How can we believe that we are close to God when we are distant from his creatures? When the first texts of Islamic mysticism appeared, their writers must have transformed into doctrine and spiritual teaching a long series of experiences through which the early centuries of Islam had passed. Thus withdrawal from the world was seen as the first stage in the disciple’s journey and conditions were imposed. The first was essential: one should not withdraw from the evil of the world, one should withdraw one’s own evil from the world. The story which follows is attributed to an enigmatic figure of Islamic mysticism.

“Layla and Majnun at School” (Nezami, Khamsa, 1476)

Dhu-l-Nun of Egypt was a ninth-century teacher. He was born and died in the vicinity of Cairo but spent most of his life in constant wanderings, letting a route that was never marked out become an opportunity for extraordinary encounters. His teachings were passed down orally, a process which of course made possible certain apocryphal attributions but philological uncertainty alone does not suffice either to explain or to understand the immense number of incidents of which he was the protagonist. In his originality he gained a following and there is a basic consistence in the figure which tradition has passed down to us, in the plurality of the different branches of knowledge which he embodied, from ascesis to the dawn of mysticism, from juridical opinions to the most occult sciences. His name itself, Dhu-l-Nun, “the man of the letter nun”, is a Qur’anic reminiscence of the figure of Jonah and the whale, a story of flood and salvation. Many were the women who, despite the brevity of his encounters with them, were to prove fundamental on his spiritual journey. The “greatest master”, Ibn ‘Arabi the Andalusian, who died in Damascus in the 13th century, describes the biographies of some of these women in his work dedicated to our hero, the Life of Dhu-l-Nun of Egypt.

However let us proceed in order. In the episode to which we refer, the problem of solitude is illustrated thanks to a meeting with a being even more solitary than Dhu-l-Nun, the black slave and lute-player Su’ud.

Dhu-l-Nun tells that he spent a year in retreat in a forest, living on wild plants and drinking from springs. He describes his state as an unfathomable spiritual fullness, which he nevertheless found to be fragile on the day when a groan which came from a cave in the wood reminded him of human brotherhood. It was as if he fell into a fit which he was unable to resist and found himself not far from a dark shadow, around which fierce lions prowled without harming it. He drew close and discovered a black woman. He came even closer and the lions fled. She called him by his name, as if she had always known him. “Dhu-l-Nun! For someone who is intimate with God and foreign to whatever God is not, everything is a friend, but everything abhors the man who hankers after his own species, into whose heart the senses have penetrated”! It was not the first time that he had come across a mysterious female figure, and it was not the first time that such a figure had recognized him and called him by his name. It had already happened to him near Antioch, where a mentally ill girl servant dressed in rough wool had questioned him on spiritual work. On another journey a woman wayfarer had reprimanded him for introducing himself to her as “a foreigner”: could “foreignness” exist together with God?

“Majnun and animals” (1600)

Su’ud continued: “Dhu-l-Nun, you and he were there, why did you put me between the two of you?” She turned to the lions and asked them to stay. “He is Dhu-l-Nun, do not be afraid”. Dhu-l-Nun wanted to leave, the awareness that had dawned in him was too strong and his tears impossible to hold back. But she asked him where he intended going. Almost powerless he answered: “Isn’t what has just happened enough?” She replied: “No, dear friend! You have sought intimacy with others than God through love of the intimacy of God and when dear beings meet in memory of the common Beloved they do not for this reason abandon the intimacy of love!”. Dhu-l-Nun then sat beside her, they told each other about their respective exiles, the abandonment of their brothers and sisters, their withdrawals far from human beings. Dhu-l-Nun described their state thus: “We walked like drunkards, she questioned me about the reason for my conversion to God and I told her my story, and I asked her in turn to tell me hers”. And she therefore recounted what had happened to her. Su`ud was a slave who belonged to a powerful vizier at the court of the Caliph in Baghdad. This vizier liked to drink and organized feasts and banquets during which she would sing and play the lute and he clothed her in the garments he liked best. During one of these feasts someone knocked at the door of the palace. Before opening it they asked who was there. “A poor man come to ask for something in God’s name!”. The vizier consented. “Let him come in, that he may be served according to his wishes!”. But the poor man refused to take a step forward, out of zeal and scruples, into a palace in which people drank and the slaves danced and played music. “Give me something to eat here outside, if you do not want me to go away!”. The vizier in person brought him a dish and a plate of fruit, but the poor man ordered him to put them into his mouth. The vizier became impatient. “Enough of these caprices! How dare you!”. “If I seem spoilt to you”, the poor man replied, “know that he spoils me even more than that”. When she heard the beggar’s words, Su’ud shouted to her master: “This treasure is for you, do not let it escape you!”. He looked at her: “if you have understood this, it means that the treasure is for you. You won’t come back, will you?”. “That’s right”, she said, I won’t come back again”.

Dhu-l-nun took his leave in order to return to the place of his retreat but was unable to stop thinking about her and her story. He missed her. He tried to travel but his wanderings brought him back to the place where they had met, and she was no longer there. How could he find her? He said to himself that if there was any place worthy of reuniting them it could only be the sacred dwelling place of God in Mecca, during the annual pilgrimage. He did not find her at the Kaaba so he made his way towards the mosque where the Prophet reposes in Medina, where he, the Beloved, would be able to reunite the lovers. And indeed he found her there. When she noticed him she addressed severe words to him: “I saw you wandering round the Kaaba, but it was around me that you were wandering! I should have liked to speak to you but something prevented me from doing so and I was urged towards the mosque of the Prophet. At last, now I can speak to you. Dhu-l-Nun, what have you learned from your travels?”. He answered: “To be satisfied with him, to be able to accept closeness or distance, union or exile, poverty or comfort, glory or humiliation, life or death”. Su’ud offered him a last teaching. “You would not have been satisfied with God if God had first not been fully satisfied with you”. And she recited a verse of the Qur’an which recurs in various passages in the book: “Allah is well pleased with them and they are well pleased with Him” Of course, the sacred text places this gaze of grace in the hereafter, but Su’ud knew that the things of the spirit are timeless, or rather that time and space are contingent reflections of eternity. “Dhu-l-Nun, since we met, in our retreat, I have wanted nothing other than to encounter God, but I have no merit that I can boast of in his presence, I implore you, entreat him for me, that he may accept me!”. An invisible voice intervened which only Dhu-l-Nun heard: “Don’t do it! She belongs to God who likes to hear her groan, do not put yourself between them”. He then realized what that groan was which had made him emerge from his solitude with God, or rather he then understood that that groan, in reality, had never made him come out of his solitude with God. “Dhu-l-Nun, are you not praying for me?”. “No, I cannot intervene between the lover and the beloved”. They went their separate ways and history does not tell us if one day they ever met again.

What happened to Su’ud, the black lute player, teacher of Dhu-l-Nun, is paradoxical because it teaches us to seek knowledge in the human, but in a human never separated from God, in a union that poverty, destitution and sadness alone can bring about. It was not a place of transcendence, the Temple of the Kaaba, which could reunite them, but rather the human presence of the Prophet, in whom tradition recognizes the perfect lover. The story of Dhu-l-Nun is extraordinary and is lost in legend. But to conclude it, the ancient biographers sought his last words. In one verse in he said: “knowing him, even for only an instant, before dying” There is a part of Su’ud’s teaching in this spiritual testament.

Francesco Chiabotti




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 14, 2019